At around 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016, a crew installing underground fiber-optic cable mistakenly cut a gas line in front of the Canton Opera House, a building that had stood for 100 years in the center of Canton, Ill.
By 5 p.m., nearby customers in the downtown business district of the small Illinois city reported smelling gas in the air, and 37 minutes later gas service was shut down.
Seven minutes after that, an explosion tore a hole through the Opera House, killing one man, injuring 11 more, and causing more than $10 million in damage. More than 50 buildings were affected by the blast, including the opera house, which would end up having to be razed.
“I was shocked at the lack of training the people had there,” Mayor Kent McDowell told the Peoria Journal Star. “That’s the first thing that jumped out at me right away.”
Although some accidents are not preventable, most are. Many of the ones that are preventable are a result of something that happened (or, more accurately, didn’t happen) long before the accident took place – long before anything was actually done on the work site: Proper education.
Education is often looked at as something a young person is supposed to go through, early in their career, in order to become qualified to do the work. For too many surveyors, engineers, planners, and others in our industry, education stops once degrees and certifications have been earned, and practice has begun. Many surveyors are great in their respective disciplines, but education, particularly for new skills and disciplines, should be a lifelong experience and a built-in part of any professional’s daily working life.
There are a few reasons for this. One, the knowledge we learn during our university and training years is based on the information available at the time, and even in an industry as old as ours, there are always new techniques, procedures, rules and protocols to be learned.
The second reason is that the education a surveyor, engineer, planner or other professional earns as part of their post-secondary schooling might be enough to give them the tools they need to get started in the industry, but it is not truly comprehensive. That kind of knowledge and understanding – two connected but different concepts – takes much longer than a four-year bachelor’s degree course and four more years of training can provide. In many cases, mentoring and training after the academic years can help further hone skills, or gain new ones.
One example of a fairly new rule – first introduced in 2002 – is the American Society of Civil Engineers’ ASCE C-I 38-02, Standard Guidelines for the Collection and Depiction of Existing Subsurface Utility Data, which is a National Consensus Standard – meaning it’s an ASCE standard and an American National Standard Institute (ANSI) standard. It’s important because it outlines the protocols and responsibilities involved in subsurface utility and underground work, which can become a costly and even dangerous problem if not handled correctly.
Ultimately, the standard is designed to mitigate risks – the risk of cost overruns, the risk of project problems, and most of all the risk of harm to people and property. Speaking at a recent conference, we were surprised to learn that many in the room were not aware of the ASCE 38-02. Although Pennsylvania has adopted it as state law, and Colorado is set to do the same in 2019, it isn’t a universally known and understood standard.
The foundation of the standard is knowledge. Having good protocols and processes in place to collect and communicate knowledge about the subsurface utilities at a given site is key to a safe and successful project. And although it’s been on the books for a while, if you finished your formal education in 2001 and didn’t continue learning about the important parts of our business, your body of knowledge could now be lacking in a very important and booming area of the surveying and engineering fields.
If the crew that was working on the construction in front of the Canton Opera House on that fateful day in November 2016 had the proper awareness of the subsurface gas line underneath their feet, the disaster that claimed a life and a cherished city building might have been averted.
We celebrate and recognize the completion of formal education with diplomas, certificates and ceremonies. But our quest for knowledge should not end there. With ever-advancing technology and techniques, and many best practices yet to be realized, it’s part of our responsibility as good surveyors to continue growing our understanding of our business through continuing education. It’s all a part of the job.